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Feature: Exhibition - Punk and Beyond at Signal Gallery from November 25-December 17

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Published: 24 November, 2011
by ANDREW JOHNSON

Not all ex-punks go on to stride through the countryside selling butter like the former Sex Pistol John Lydon – née Rotten.

But while the face of Country Life seems to have been embraced (and no reason why not) as a sort of alternative national treasure, a surprising number of his sneering, snarling, hairy-jumper-wearing peers from the late 1970s have turned their hands to art.

Only it’s perhaps not that surprising, says Gaye Black, bassist with the group The Adverts, who had a string of hits such as Gary Gilmore’s Eyes in 1977.

Black is curating an exhibition of art produced by what can only be described as the “punk school” at the Signal Gallery, in Paul Street, near Old Street, which opens tomorrow (Friday).

It features work by dozens of former and current punk rockers; or musicians inspired by the do-it-yourself ethic of a generation that gave the stodgy music business a much-needed kick up the jacksie.

There’s work from Paul Simonon of The Clash, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Michael Davis of The MC5, Nick Reynolds from the Alabama 3, and Mark Mothersbaugh, among a who’s who of musicians who once had the Daily Mail reader reaching for the Valium.

Black points out that the connection between punk and art shouldn’t be that much of a surprise as many musicians – including herself – started out in art school: “In our day there were no music colleges so anyone who wanted to do music tended to go to art college and do music on the side, or bunk out altogether and then went back to art in later times,” she says.

This is the second year Black has curated a punk show at the gallery, but this year’s Punk and Beyond is three times bigger than its last outing, and most of the artists are different. And, of course, some of them will be playing at the event.

Black, who lives near the gallery, had exhibited her work in Blackpool at the annual Rebellion festival of all things punk, and knew a couple of other former punks-turned-artists: Knox from the Vibrators and Charlie Harper from the UK Subs.

They got her started.

What did surprise her, however, was just how many musicians had quietly swapped the music studio for the artists’ studio over the past 30 years.
“The more you search the more people you find,” she says. “We don’t all know each other, and it was difficult tracking people down. I had no idea so many ex-punks were creating art.”

There are also lots of unseen photos, taken by former photographers for Sounds and Melody Maker such as Ray Stevenson and Jill Furmanovsky.

Black points out that unlike now, when everyone has a mobile camera and uploads every moment of their life on Facebook, back then, hardly anyone carried a camera around.

Thus “it was great fun” going through the archives and finding rare and precious photographs of herself and Shane McGowan watching The Clash at Harlesden Roxy, or of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex who died earlier this year.

“Poly Styrene took part last year and we’re dedicating this year’s show to her,” Black says. “I’ve got some great shots of X-Ray Spex playing a little pub in Chelsea in 1977.”

There will also be work by younger punks, such as Chris Brief, and Ben Edge of Thee Spivs, who was shortlisted for the National Portrait Awards in 2009.

Some of his work shows that punk and art are linked not just on the creative field, but from an attitude that formal rules and guidelines don’t necessarily need to be followed.

“He’s got some great portraits of outsider artists,” Black says. “That links in with punk of course because they were outsiders doing things without any formal training, which is how most punk bands started. The punk ethos wasn’t about how well someone could play technically.

“It was the energy and the fact that the music was irresistible even if someone had only been playing the drums for three months. It was what they were doing, not how they did it.”

• Punk and Beyond is at the Signal Gallery, Paul Street, near Old Street, EC2, from November 25-December 17, open Tuesday-Saturday 12-6pm. On each of the four Saturdays of the run musicians from the show will be performing free sets in the gallery. Details of the line-up will be
announced nearer to the time, 0207 6131550, www.signalgallery.com

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